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Azurmendi starts to get recognition

Azurmendi really took off last year, earning a third Michelin star and a series of rave reviews. I remember PhilD last September writing here on Chowhound "Go here as soon as you can – it is a real winner and will be impossible to get into when the word gets out."

We dined there shortly after Phil and also had an excellent meal and overall dining experience, and will be returning this May.

I was curious how well the restaurant would do on those "Top 100" lists for 2014, whether enough people had dined there yet to vote it onto the lists.

Well, the "Elite Traveler" list came out this week and I see Azurmendi debuts at # 7 in the world, which is pretty impressive.

I'm aware that these lists are somewhat controversial and in some cases not trustworthy (when a Michelin 3* Spanish chef calls the Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine list a 'fraud' it gets your attention). I've dined at seven of the top nine on this year's list and I feel two of them are grossly overrated, based on our experiences there.

But if a restaurant you want to visit is high on one of these lists it's often a warning that you need to get an early reservation. I learned this the hard way when I missed out on Can Roca, which has been fully booked for the next eleven months for some time now.

Here's a link to the list: http://www.elitetraveler.com/category...

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  1. Spanish restaurants on the list:

    # 6 Can Roca
    # 7 Azurmendi

    # 22 Mugaritz
    # 31 Quique Dacosta

    # 53 Martin Berasategui
    # 63 Arzak
    # 78 Sant Pau

    1. Cant wait!!

      Thought you might like to know that I am going to Extebarri after all! I am going to take the 2 hour train ride there - hope it is worth it. I'm now rethinking Ibai because I will be going to Elkano on the same day and some reviewers have commented that Ibai is quite expensive for what it is and Extebarri and Elkano is better value for money.

      1. Despite my 2014 resolution to be a little nicer this year, I have to pour a little tepid water on the rave reviews for Azurmendi.

        Yes, it’s a very good restaurant – but, it was the weakest meal of my three meals recently enjoyed in the area. (For reference Akelare was #1 – by a long way; and Mugaritz was #2).

        They try so hard at Azurmendi that I almost feel guilty for not raving about the meal. The welcome, introduction and overall philosophy are all spectacular and we were anticipating a culinary tour-de-force.

        The first ‘setback’ was that the whole table must order the same tasting menu (although substitutions are welcomed). This contrasts with Akelare where there are 3 choices of tasting menu, but is better than Mugaritz where there are no choices at all.

        So the parade of dishes began – the plating was spectacular, but right from the start it seemed that aromatics were non-existent or very subdued. Very pretty, but missing the sensory stimulation.

        As the meal continued we found textures to not be as balanced as at the other two places, but the visual feast continued apace with multi-colours on the plate. Also, repetition of techniques became a bit boring e.g. there were 4 dishes (maybe 5) with spheres with a firm shell containing a liquid interior. And also, the flavours seemed ‘muddy’ – not pure, but rather confusing as opposed to layered (I hasten to add there were no ‘off’ flavours, just not as precise as experienced in the other two meals). Clearly some dishes did hit it out of the park, but too many just faded away.

        Another ‘issue’ was seemingly random elements within dishes – not clear (to me) why some elements had been included.

        So, overall, I enjoyed the meal but felt this was still a ‘work-in-progress’ rather than the confident, accomplished meals that I had elsewhere.

        And a final point that just became apparent as I prepared to post this. I searched for the ‘best’ thread to post this review and this is the most recent, so I chose this.

        However, the most detailed review (excellent by the way) was here

        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9167...

        I noted this was last September, but found it amazing that, in April, my meal was almost identical. For a restaurant that espouses local and seasonal, I find it problematic that the almost identical meal is served in both April and September. My local places in Toronto would have completely different menus over that time period. But I’m not fully familiar with the seasonal variation in Spain, so maybe it’s different there. And, to emphasize, all of my impressions above were formed without any knowledge of the September menu in the link.

        And a final (sad) comment – there were more staff than patrons at Azurmendi (on a Saturday night)! And neither Akelare nor Mugaritz were full either.

        11 Replies
        1. re: estufarian

          Interesting comments. On the menu choice we did need to select the same menu but they allowed us to combine dishes from both menus to make our own - I thought this was very flexible.

          It is a few years since I ate at the other two so tricky to assess like you have (although Extebarri did very little for me on that trip).

          Ref the lack of a changing menu, its a good point. We were in Phuket at Christmas and headed to their new outpost - Aziamendi. We were expecting their take on Thai ingredients and local produce but basically had exactly the same meal we had enjoyed in Spain (except at a considerably higher cost). Very disappointing and a bit of a let down....and goes to your point about not really seasonal and local (Thailand is a massive supplier of seafood and vegetables these days - so lots of good stuff around).

          And yes - I always wonder how the Spanish places survive with the level of patronage. I have been to Mugaritz twice and never more than a third full, I wonder if Arzak still fills up? It is a bit weird as Extraberri was totally full despite being in the middle of no where and whilst I like some of the food I thought the "USP" of the cooking technique wasn't really sustained over the whole meal.

          1. re: PhilD

            Many thanks again for your detailed review last year. While that didn't affect my review, it was instrumental in getting me to 'overcome' the Hayler review. And indeed Azurmendi was a very good meal.
            But it was only after writing my review that I checked back on your review and was struck by the similarity. I had no idea that my April menu was so similar to yours until I was about to post.
            As you have experienced the 'welcome routine' (don't want to spoil it for new visitors), the expectations raised there (both noble and notable) just didn't fit with what was provided. And your further info about the Thai outpost also underscores my confusion about 'appearance' and 'reality'.

            To emphasize, Azurmendi provides an excellent experience at a fair price (OK the wines don't quite measure up, but the price for those is also fair). But, so far (and I have hopes) it hasn't yet reached the same level as the other notable places in the region. Both Akelare and Mugaritz have a 'confidence' that shines through (albeit they are very different and may not both be to one's taste). Etxeberri (which I didn't visit on this trip - subbed Azurmendi instead) exhibits a mastery of technique (probably unparalleled anywhere), but that technique is always secondary to the respect for the ingredients. I recall more dishes from my last visit to Etxebarri (5 years back) than I do from this visit to Azurmendi (not literally true, of course, but I don't expect to recall the recent dishes in 5 years time). That doesn't mean I 'liked' them all - the caviar was a mess (but I'll never forget it!); the beef was maybe my best ever.

            But please, to anyone reading, try all the above places. It's still difficult to find such a spectacular set of superb dining anywhere else in the world - especially at these prices.

            1. re: estufarian

              "But please, to anyone reading, try all the above places. It's still difficult to find such a spectacular set of superb dining anywhere else in the world - especially at these prices."

              So, so true. They are almost like the must read classics to complete an education. It is so depressing see all the posts about Barcelona on the board - certainly an interesting food city but not a patch on the Basque area. I find it weird that on a food discussion board for Spain so few visit this area, and even fewer venture to the iconic restaurants.

              1. re: PhilD

                Ya I'm really looking forward to going to SS in May! Now I am slightly regretting canceling Akelarre. Do u think I should go to Akelarre instead of Ibai keeping in mind I'll be going to Elkano, Extebarri and Azurmendi in my SS leg of the trip (going to pakta and bodega 1900 in Barcelona as well)

                1. re: misochi

                  I can't speak to whether to cancel Ibai as I haven't dined there.
                  However, Akelare was the outstanding meal of my trip (which included Fat Duck as well) and I rate it as probably my second best meal in the last 10 years. Just too much to report on (I'm in the middle of moving house) but having the choice of 3 separate tasting menus (one of which is a 'greatest hits' which we didn't order), was an absolute bonus. The wine list has been picked over since my previous visit, but was still very good, and the wine pairings were excellent.

                  1. re: estufarian

                    Argh! I just realized that Atxa will be in Hong Kong when I'm in his restaurant. Wonder whether that would affect the standard of the food served

                    1. re: misochi

                      He is HK May 12th to 14th (so allowing for travel probably away a week). My guess is it won't make that much difference as it is a well schooled brigade and he has successfully transported the dishes to a team in Phuket without noticeable loss in quality. In fact the signature truffled egg in Phuket is probably a bit better than in Spain.

                      1. re: misochi

                        He was in Thailand last October when we had a great meal there, and he'll be in Los Gatos, California sharing the stove with Chef Kinch at Manresa when we dine at Azurmendi in May. http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/...

                        I'm not really worried but it would be nice to actually meet the guy one of these days :)

                        1. re: willyum

                          Thanks! At the gym now in anticipation of the impending gluttony ;)

                          1. re: misochi

                            @ "At the gym now in anticipation of the impending gluttony ;)"

                            LOL ... I'm supposed to burn 800 calories on the elliptical this morning myself for the same reason.

                            Did you decide to drop Ibai? Without knowing Spanish it will be tough, from all I hear ...

                            1. re: willyum

                              I'm still undecided but probably still keeping ibai for the sole. I did some homework and have the popular dishes translated and I hear that there is actually a piece of paper with the English translations that they will point to when they refer to the daily specials.

          2. Azurmendi is # 26 on the Pellegrino "World's Best Restaurants" 2014 list announced today. I thought they'd go a bit higher given the number of Pellegrino voter 'hot buttons' they push (Spanish, a bit molecular, in/near San Sebastian). But not bad for a debut.

            As usual, some strange things in the rankings, though in general they get it right. We were in London recently and dined at four restaurants that made this list ... it's baffling to me that Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is rated # 4 in the World, given that we rated rated our meal there a weak fourth on this trip, behind Ledbury (# 10, truly an exceptional restaurant), Hedone (# 63) and Fat Duck (# 47).

            1 Reply
            1. re: willyum

              Agree with you (mostly) on this one.
              Ledbury better than Fat Duck, better than Dinner by Heston - couldn't get into Hedone. Dinner by Heston was the weakest place in my trip about 18 months ago.

            2. How was ur experience at Azurmendi today?

              1 Reply
              1. re: misochi

                Hi,

                Well, you know by now since we had lunch together Friday at Ibai and talked about it, plus by then you had also been there :)

                For the sake of the others reading this thread, we enjoyed our meal there a lot again but noticed the style had changed a bit as some of the very strong-flavored dishes were replaced by more subtle ones on this visit.

                I'll send you an email later today (just got back) but we also liked Mugaritz a lot on Saturday. Wasn't sure what to expect -- we had been told by several people we probably wouldn't like it -- but it wasn't overly molecular and there were some really terrific dishes presented.